The born-again gangster

2013-10-13 14:00

How do you organise a job for one of the country’s most feared – and allegedly reformed – gangsters? Pretty easily if you’re Pastor Ivan Waldeck. Words by Charles Cilliers. Pictures by Denvor de Wee.

It’s a windy and freezing late-September morning in Cape Town.

There’s a man in a hoodie holding a mangled umbrella, fighting with the wind.

The man is the former boss of the Hard Livings gang, 57-year-old Rashied Staggie.

He’s been brought to Bellville by a small army of correctional services officers, including the area commissioner.

They are doing Staggie’s “orientation” as part of the final stages of his day-parole preparations.

This is the place where Staggie will come to every day, apparently to work as “a cleaner”.

At the Holy Nation of God centre is the man who is now Staggie’s “boss”.

You’d have to be cut from a different cloth – pun intended – to offer a job to Staggie. But Pastor Ivan Waldeck is fearless.

His work almost cost him his life a few months ago, but he has no thoughts of quitting.

In March, while “brokering peace” between rival gangs, one of the smaller gangs in the conflict tried to kill him, he says.

Gangsters emptied 17 bullets into Waldeck’s car at point-blank range. One of those hit his wife in the cheek.

Another eight went straight into Waldeck’s short, stocky body. He was inches from death and believes if he had put his seat any higher, the bullets would have had their intended effect.

Although he has almost fully recovered and is in the last stages of physical therapy, Waldeck remains in pain.

But he shows none of that while stomping the decks at his Holy Nation centre, part of a church brand he founded nine years ago to combat gangsterism.

Looking at him, it’s difficult to believe this busybody was recently confined to a wheelchair.

“Yes, it’s a miracle,” he says matter-of-factly, as if he would never have expected it to be any different. There have, perhaps, been other “miracles” for him.

He grew up in Elsies River and was typical fodder for gang culture: raised by his single mother; joined a gang at school when he was nine; then joined the Americans, a street gang; aged 14, stabbed a rival gang member to death; went to jail; was released; was expelled from school; killed more people; went back to jail.

“Things were just haywire. We would fight all the time. You’d have a war just on the way to school,” he recalls.

By 1986, aged 15, he was destined to see out his adolescence in prison. He’d been sentenced to 10 years for 21 successful charges out of 42.

“Murder, attempted murder, assault,” he says.

He was too homicidal to be sent to the reformatory with other youngsters, but he could not be sent to general lock-up with older men either.

There weren’t cells in those days for juveniles.

So they sent him to the hospital wing of Pollsmoor Prison.

There he met a tall black man who carried himself with a regal, authoritative air.

“I had an idea who Nelson Mandela was – but I didn’t really understand politics. The old man greeted the warder, then looked at me and said: ‘Good morning boy,’ in that soft-spoken, but strong voice. ‘How old are you?’

“I thought, who’s this guy asking me this? But I told him I was 15. He sighed and told me: ‘There will come a day in this country when children like you will never come to prison again.’”

Those words did not resonate for the young man then, but he has never forgotten them.

His daily duties included cleaning Madiba’s three cells – his bedroom, gym and library.

When he turned 18, Mandela was getting ready to be released and Waldeck was sent to general lock-up.

There, he joined the 26es and become entangled in the number system that organises gangs in jail.

When Waldeck was released in 1994, his dignified old friend was preparing to be president.

But it only took a few days before Waldeck shot his cousin – just for being in a rival gang.

“I realised I couldn’t go on like this. A friend invited me to a home-cell church service. I gave my life totally over to the Lord.”

Unsurprisingly, when he started his ministry, his focus was on gangs.

He mediated successfully in a conflict between the War Prouds and the Americans in Ravensmead, a peace he says has remained largely unbroken.

In 1996, when Rashaad Staggie was torched by vigilante group

Pagad, all the gang bosses united to form the Community Outreach Forum.

And they came to Waldeck for help.

He was still only finishing his theology studies at the Lighthouse Church.

He initially hit it off with Rashied Staggie’s wife, Rashieda, who he says converted to Christianity from Islam through his influence.

But Waldeck also grew closer to Staggie, because he “respected my principles and what I stand for”.

Waldeck now believes the years he spent in gangs and in prison were part of God’s plan for him to be able to work with gangsters and be a minister to them.

When he gives classes to a group of the approximately 20 former gangsters going through the six-month programme at his centre, the Bible verses he chooses are mostly about turning away from violence and controlling emotions.

The young men at his centre seem excited at the prospect of having the former gang lord among them.

“Staggie will be a good mentor to us,” one says.

“Yes, to encourage them to do as he has done,” Waldeck adds. “Turn their backs on crime. But remember, he’s just a cleaner,” he adds playfully.

Waldeck seems to have utter faith that Staggie wants to walk the straight and narrow.

But he doesn’t have illusions. “If Staggie wanted to,” Waldeck explains, “he could control all the drugs again in a tight fist. But he won’t.”

Waldeck also believes, as the Staggie family does, the gang rape conviction Staggie went to prison for was a frame-up.

Most paradoxically, he believes Staggie can play a role in bringing greater peace to the gangster badlands of Cape Town.

Some would say that may be a bit like saying you can kill a fire by drowning it in paraffin.

But Pastor Ivan Waldeck believes in miracles.

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